Birds hold clues to climate change

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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Simon Fraser University professor Tony Williams is among a select group of scientists gathering in Wageningen, Holland in November to figure out what the future holds for the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

Birds - highly visible creatures in the world's ecosystem - are turning out to be the ecological canaries in a world undergoing climate change.

“The public and scientists are very concerned about changes in birds' distribution and abundance in response to rising world temperatures. Many studies show that a variety of animals and plants have changed their breeding or flowering schedules, their distribution and range, and in the case of birds, timing of migration. This could be indicative of detrimental environmental changes,” says Williams, a physiological ecologist and chair of SFU's biological sciences department.

Williams is the principal investigator on Avian Reproduction and Environmental Change, a national network funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Williams helped launch the group, earlier this year. The network is bringing together ecologists and physiologists to discuss the significance and direction of variations in bird responses to climate change.

“Environmental changes impact birds' breeding practices via a cascade of hormone-dependent physiological processes,” explains Williams. “Changes in these processes will determine the extent and rate at which birds might adapt to changes in their environment. But not all breeding birds are equal. This variability could be key to predicting the extent to which climate will negatively, or positively, impact different species. It is individual variation that provides the raw material for natural selection to act on - if whole populations eventually show evolved responses to climate change.”

Williams' research group has led the way in investigating and understanding individual variability in bird reproduction.

Williams' avian network and similar groups in Europe and the United States are collaborating on the presentation of research at four workshops, including the one in Wageningen, over three years.

At the upcoming workshop, ecologists and physiologists will try to identify when and to what extent hormonal control mechanisms constrain the evolution of life-history traits in birds.

“There are a number of ways in which hormonal control mechanisms may influence evolutionary outcomes,” explains Williams. “For example, single hormones may have multiple effects and create trade-offs between different fitness-related traits.”

The ability to predict how climate change will impact birds' evolutionary responses could help scientists predict what is in store for humans and other animals.

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